E-5, Personnel Specialist, U.S. Army
January 1969-January 1970
I was in New York working one day in 1967 when my brother called and said: “Sis, I just got drafted. I’m going to Vietnam.” I said, “I’ll be there.” Two hours later, I was signing up to join the Army. We were very, very close. Our birthdays are a year and three days apart. I got through my test and they said, “You passed everything but you flunked mechanics.” I said, “Good. Then I don’t have to get dirty nails.” I went to basic training at Fort McClellan. And of course I was one of the firstmouthy ones there. I had to use a toothbrush to clean the tile floor in the bathroom because I was chewing gum. You know, I’m 18.
I got on-the-job training at the Pentagon Annex. By then I was an E2, administrative specialist. I worked for Maj. Gen. Edwin Burba, Sr. He had four sons, and he used to say I was the daughter he never had.
Enlisted women couldn’t go to Vietnam unless they were E4 or above, so I put in for Vietnam as soon as I was an E4 in early 1968.
Then, in November 1968, General Burba called me into his office. “Sue, sit down. You’re going to Vietnam,” he said. “But your job there is only going to be six months, because the guy who had it before you had 10 days left in Nam and went outside the hooch and shot himself.” He must’ve known more than he let on. All I knew was that I was going to be at U.S. Army Vietnam (USARV) Headquarters in Long Binh, and that I would be assigning E-1s through E-6s, privates through staff sergeants, within Vietnam.
While I was at the Pentagon, I had made a good friend, Sue Schungel. She’d been in the Army longer than me, and in July 1968 she went to Vietnam. When I finally got to Nam in January 1969, Sue said to me: “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been waiting for you.” I said, “I couldn’t get here any faster!”
My brother, who was in the 9th Infantry Division, had left Vietnam in 1968, so I didn’t get the chance to serve with him after all.
Sue and I were the only women in our office, with 26 guys.We got an hour and a half for lunch, so Sue and I’d run home to tan. Sue and Sue. We weren’t supposed to leave the WAC detachment, but one time we stole a general’s jeep and got busted because we each had a bottle of champagne. I thought I was being nice by filling up the gas tank, but I put diesel fuel in it. “Well, we’ll sit here and drink our champagne while you empty it out,” I told the sergeant at the station. We also hitchhiked, which was totally, totally not cool.
Overall, there were 25,000 men at our base area, and 82 enlisted women. When a plane of soldiers would come in to Long Binh, there would be a levy, and we’d go get it. We had all the Army in-country, E-1s thru E-6s, to process. They had to stay in their MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) and we’d assign them to the 1st Cav or the 25th Division, for instance. Everybody wanted to be a door gunner. They’d come in and say, “I want to talk to the person…” and they’d see us and go, “Woman, round eye, wow.” Sue would say, “I can’t do anything for ya.” We were so short of men, it was frustrating at times.
A guy named Gary and I were picked to do the processing of the KIAs—how they were killed, when and where—and send the letters home. It sounded easy at first. I used a form letter—just added a name to it on my typewriter. Mr. and Mrs. John Doe, you know….Then it was signed by the government. But it got harder and harder to do.
Then in February ’69, during Tet, we got hit and spent a week in a bunker near our hooches. It was 2 o’clock in the morning and Sue was on the top bunk, and the next thing I knew we were laying on the floor because they shelled the bank right across the street from us. I got dressed in all my gear and was smart enough to take my canteen. Some of the women didn’t and we had little fights over water. But Sue and I got out and jumped on top of the bunker. We looked over the fence and saw dead Viet Cong everywhere. We were crying. We wanted to go home. All of a sudden, they brought in choppers and put the ladders down and wanted us to evacuate. I said: “I’m not that stupid. They’ll shoot me in the back.” Sue said: “Me too. We’re staying here.”
The sergeant said: “In the office is the gun and the hand grenades. If you get captured, blow up the safe. And if you choose to get captured or kill yourself, that’s your perogative.” When we got back to work nine days later, we stood on the hill at USARV with binoculars, just watching Charlie come through the perimeter. They were getting shot as fast as they were coming. We thought, “Don’t you think they’d quit?”
I didn’t really have a clue what GIs were facing until we got hit during Tet that year. We were sheltered at headquarters. Initially I thought, “This is a piece of cake.” Went to work, came home, ate. All of a sudden, a month and a half later, you start counting bodies and it hits you.
Those guys were my soldiers. I was a soldier and I was there, but I couldn’t do anything about protecting them. You know, all the ones I had to put away, I guess the rest left alive are mine. I’m very protective of them. I’ve been that way ever since I came home from Vietnam.
From the documentary Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories, by Wisconsin Public Television, www.wisconsinstories.org/vietnam.